Below are a series of text messages typed and erased and retyped:
‘Yo sorry for being away. My mum got admitted into the hospital a week ago. We thought it was nothing major, because she complained of nausea and backache but the doctor came in just now, and-‘
‘Hey. Sorry for not replying to your last text. I was… occupied. Thing is, my mum got admitted into the hospital and it’s not good. It’s really not good. She’s-‘
:Sorry. Been busy. My mum’s in the hospital and lord I don’t want to type this out because I don’t want to be convinced that it’s real, but it’s bad. Everything is. My mum is-”
‘Hey. I’m sorry for not replying to your text. But this past week has been extremely difficult. My mum’s diagnosed with kidney failure, and the whole family is rushing to get things done. I don’t think I’ll be taking a breather anytime soon, but I promise that as soon as I do, I’ll call you. Love you.’
The phone is new, so no matter how much she feels like chucking it off her hands without looking at where it lands, she shoves it into the confines of her bag, fingers grazing her car keys and a tin can of Eclipse mints along the way. Leaning completely against the chair, she places one foot over another on the seat infront of her, her moldy green flip-flops blending in with the upholstery which coincidentally has the same hue. The guest lounge, with its multitude of chairs, lone center-table and wall-mounted TV, feels anything but welcoming. She sighs, then remembers the vow she made last night and the night before and the night before that; to stop sighing. Not here, not anymore.
Her phone buzzes once, twice, thrice until it becomes incessant and she peers into her gaping bag, seeing the gadget lighting up with notifications one after another. Kak Reen, her eldest sister, has already notified the family, it seems.
Right, she thinks. She removes the bag from her lap and places it on the vacant seat next to her. The older, more matured ones in the family can handle the outpour of questions and general condolences while she stays out of this one. It isn’t in her job scope anyway, she thinks further, and recalls the terse conversation she shared with Kak Reen on the phone while she was packing her clothes to bring to the hospital.
“I don’t know how long she’ll be in, but you’re on break anyway so there’s no problem there,” her thick Kelantanese accent rumbled through the speaker, and Intan’s reminded of the stereotype about Kelantanese women: the type of women who wear the pants in relationships; the women who rule their significant others with iron fists; the women who you can’t wrong because they’ll hunt you down all the way until the next life.
“Oi dengar dok,” her sister admonished, and Intan straightened up, croaked out a ‘yes’. Her sister sighed, deep and drawn out, obviously intended for her to hear. “Alert lah sikit.”
She mumbled an apology.
Now here she is, hiding in the guest lounge while her mother lies flat on the hospital bed, looking more bones than skin. Intan had left her while she was asleep, but it has been hours, and she’s pretty sure she has already been roused from her slumber. The thought doesn’t spur her to get on her feet though, but the longer the minutes stretch the more she’s feeling as if she has sinned. But her thoughts are haywire and it’s pressing down on her, and everything and everyone is moving too fast and she feels like she can drown under all the orders barked at her but handling a calamity, especially of this kind, is not her forte. Her sisters – iron ladies, she has to give them that – look like they know exactly what they’re doing, know exactly what to do. She, on the other hand – as shameful as this may sound, needs a manual.
“You can’t be like this,” the second eldest of the family said when she found Intan dozing off at the surau a little after eight in the morning. She was unable to sleep on her first night at the hospital, partly because the kerusi malas provided by the hospital was anything but comfy, another because her thoughts were too distraught for her to find some peace nestled in between. That had led her to slip into unconsciousness immediately after she performed her subuh prayer.
“Buck up lah, Intan. Be responsible. Kalau awak lembab laguni, mummy hok susah.”
The recollection bites into her conscience, and Intan slowly gets up. As mentally tired as she is, she isn’t going to risk getting the same biting remarks from her sisters. She trudges towards her mother, her bed located at the very end of the hospital wing, and pushes aside the curtain concealing her from the outside world. Her mother is indeed awake, and she regards her daughter’s entrance with a weak blink.
Intan can’t find it in her to smile, so she plunges right into the question of whether her mother is in need of anything. The latter shakes her head, and Intan immediately reaches for her folded duvet from inside the drawer. As she prepares for her makeshift bed on the floor, she steals a glance at her mother, only to be met with a sleeping figure.
In less than a minute, she does the same.
The next morning her mother is wheeled into an operation room, and Intan waits nervously outside the door. It’s an operation that isn’t needed if her mother is in a stable condition, but even so, the doctor did assure her that it’s harmless.
“Will it hurt though?” she asked.
The doctor smiled, and Intan didn’t like it.
But her mother’s audible whines and grunts prove for it to be more than just ‘sakit sikit’, that as soon as the door is opened Intan rushes to her side, fearing the worst.
“Mummy okay dok?” she asked, eyeing the hard-to-be-missed object currently glued to her neck. Her mother regards her woefully, and Intan registers the mass slowly forming in her throat.
“Sakit,” her mother whispers and Intan nods slowly, not looking her mother in the eyes anymore. Without a word, she grips the handles of the wheelchair tightly until her knuckles turn white, then wheels her mother back to bed.
A few hours later and she’s looking at a peaceful figure currently lying in bed. Her eyes are burgeoning with tears but Intan isn’t going to admit that she’s been crying, definitely not. She’s been staying in this hospital for over a week and just last night she was so sick of seeing the same damn doctors, the same damn nurses, the same damn sick people who told her they’ve been here for months, some even years, that she almost puked.
Now she just feels like she would be willing to forsake the outside world if only it means her mother doesn’t have to go through that again.
She is about to pull the curtain to a close when the Chinese grandmother occupying the bed next to them speaks up.
“She just got catheter, is it?”
Intan blinks. It’s been a while since she’s talked to someone unfamiliar, but she’s the kind of person who really values her solitude so being alone for days on end does not bother her.
But, ‘oh, company would be really really appreciated right now’, she thinks, and steps over the invisible threshold between her mother’s area and their neighbour’s, and pulls the curtain behind her.
“Yeah…” she answers once she sits down on the guest chair. “Mak cakap sakit.”
“Eh…” the elderly woman draws out, looking at Intan with scrutiny it makes her feel as if she had said something offensive instead.
“Memang sakit. Itu, dia masuk kat sini tau,” her finger points at Intan’s neck, at the skin which conceals her jugular vein, before continuing. “Dia masuk tiub kat sini, tolak sampai masuk perut. Kalau dia sentuh saraf on the way masuk, oi, sakit macam electric shock.”
The old lady winces, probably reminiscing the time when she had to go through that herself.
“Teruk ke kidney mak?”
“Hm. Bila kena diagnosed, 7 percent je still operating.”
“Oh, teruk!” her small eyes grow wide for a fraction of a second. “Kenapa tak bawa check up awal-awal?”
Intan smiles bitterly. Her daily conversations with her mother were sparse, especially after she graduated from high school. Intimate moments were rarer still, and it took Intan a long time since her parents split up to come to the conclusion that the loss of intimacy is simply the repercussion of a broken family. Longer still, for her to stop blaming anyone – especially herself, especially after that mean comment her primary school classmate threw at her about her parents’ divorce – and just accept that this is how the world works.
Still, it’s unfair to bring this up now as an excuse for her ignorance. It wasn’t as if her mother hadn’t been complaining of pain, but she merely offered a few comforting words and contributed it to her old age before going on her own way. To put it simply, she was cruel.
“Busy, auntie,” she answered to the patiently waiting woman. The latter looks like she is about to say something, but at the end what comes out of her is just a nod. Taking that as a cue, Intan bids her good night and leaves her space quietly.
A month later finds Intan driving to the hospital in the dead of night from home. It is supposed to be her sister’s turn to look after her mother this time, but Intan can only survive one night at that lonely, lonely house before deciding that it suffocates her more than comforts her.
She flashes her overnight guest card at the guard on duty, who begrudgingly lets her in after realizing that her rummaging through her bag for quite some time was not a cheap trick to make the guard give up on waiting and let her in without one. Intan smiles at that all the way to the seventh floor.
Upon arriving, she taps her sister on the shoulder to rouse her from her slumber.
“You sure you don’t want me here tonight?” the third of the family asks as she stretches and rubs the sleep off her eyes.
“Yeah,” Intan says, and bids her sister farewell with a ‘drive safe’.
Next to her mother’s bed is her trusted makeshift one, still unkempt from recent usage, but in an action which Intan herself wouldn’t expect to be doing, she foregoes the latter. Carefully and quietly, she slides next to her mother on the bed. Her mother blearily blinks awake at the disturbance, and Intan expects to be dismissed, but her mother only scoots a bit to the left, giving her more space.
To say she is shocked would be an understatement, but the surge of warmth she feels overpowers any other sentiments.
This, this is home. It starts a little late, and has for so long been a little hostile, and a little unwelcoming, but she can work on this.